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La Jolla at risk in fire season

“You’ve got thousands of ignition sources traveling down the highway every day and night. All it takes is one car to be on fire and pull over on the side with the right wind conditions, or God forbid, someone setting a fire ... it could happen a number of different ways,” noted Deputy Fire Chief Brian Fennessy as he watched I-5 traffic from atop Mount Soledad.

Pointing down the flanks of the cross-crowned mountain, Fennessy, who heads the special operations division of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, concluded: “Looking at these homes down here with heavy Eucalyptus trees and bushes right up next to the homes - these are losers. When the green grass turns dry and it gets windy, 15 to 20 mph or up to 50 mph when Santa Anas get blowing: Forget it. That doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen - there’s very little anybody can do.”

Describing what may happen if a fire starts on I-5 and Santa Ana winds top 40 miles per hour, Fennessy said, “All these mid-slope homes with very heavy vegetation: We will lose these homes.”

He described a situation in which fire would move very quickly up Mt. Soledad from the east. It would then move more slowly down the west side of the mountain, but it could still very easily burn right down to the sea. Embers blowing over the mountain and raining down could start many small fires on the west side.

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La Jolla could suffer huge property losses and, perhaps, loss of life. Fennessy put the warning time that people would have to get out of their homes and leave La Jolla at less than two hours.

Everything would be made more difficult by a blanket of heavy smoke, ash and embers. Fenessy expressed confidence that once residents made it to the main exit roads leaving La Jolla, San Diego Police would facilitate an orderly evacuation. He said that getting out of long driveways and side roads might be the hardest part of the evacuation for many.

Fire prevention is an enormous undertaking in a city as large as San Diego. In rugged areas such as Mount Soledad, where urban meets wild, there are lots of troublesome fire-fighting spots, such as deep canyons which funnel wildfire flames, escalating their march up home-studded steep slopes.

Of Mount Soledad’s 4,300 acres, the majority, 2,923 acres, are private property. Only 223 acres are classified as city open space. “That just shows it’s incumbent on private parcels to make sure their areas are thinned (of brush),” said Maurice Luque, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman.

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Law requires homes to have vegetation thinned within 100 feet of structures (85 feet in the coastal zone).

Fighting a wildfire in progress is like trying to save lives at the scene of a large-scale emergency. “We call it structural triage,” said Fennessy, “determining those homes that are defendable, separating them out from those we know are not going to be salvageable, taking into consideration firefighters’ lives.”

Luque noted Mount Soledad and Pottery Canyon in La Jolla are two of 30 designated I-zones, Wildland Interface Zones. These zones were identified by the city of San Diego following the 2003 Cedar Fire and defined as “communities at extreme risk from fires in adjacent open space or wild land areas.” Fire plans were subsequently developed to prepare for wildfire disasters in those areas, as well as to do community outreach promoting fire prevention.

“After the 2003 Cedar Fire, there was a lot of concern about fire getting into the city and burning all the way to the ocean,” said Luque.

There are special plans in place to be implemented in these I-zones where developed and undeveloped lands merge, in the event of a fire or other emergency. “These plans outline a number of things,” said Luque, “staging areas, evacuation routes, hydrants, hazardous materials, etc.”

Luque added the Mount Soledad emergency plan deals with the basics, discussing improvements made on defensible space on public lands as well as on private parcels. It points out a number of simple, common-sense precautions residents could - and should - implement. “It also discusses the importance of establishing community emergency response teams, Neighborhood Watch-type programs that deal with emergency situations identifying possible risks.”

Luque gave examples of risks identified in Mount Soledad’s emergency plan. “We found a number of areas where curbs that were painted red were unpainted by residents so they could park there, which causes access issues,” he said. “We had fire hydrants with walls and decorative plantings around them so we couldn’t see where they were. There were fire lanes that were blocked. There was an enforcement effort done up here to solve some of these problems.”

Luque’s assessment of an ounce of fire prevention being worth a pound of cure was echoed by Fennessy, who has 34 years’ experience fighting wildfires. “We only have so many resources,” he pointed out. “If we’ve only got one fire engine for every 10 homes and you’re maybe going to save seven of those homes the ones that did their brush clearances, those would be the ones we’d try to save. Those homes that we determine are non-salvageable ... we’re just not going to dedicate a lot of time putting our firefighters at risk on a low-percentage home.”

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Luque had this advice for homeowners contemplating what to do in the event of a wildfire. “You’ve got to have a plan,” he said. “Seventy-two hours is what we recommend that people plan on being on their own. Make sure you can take care of yourself during that period of time.”

“People should have an evacuation plan, where they’re all going to meet,” agreed Fennessy. “They should have what they need to take out packaged up during those (peak fire) months ready to go. Have your cars backed into your driveways with your valuables in boxes. Know where you’re going to go. Get their homes and their pets ready. There is not going to be any time, other than to grab your stuff and go. “

It’s also important for people to coordinate their evacuation with someone outside of the immediate area. If family members, neighbors or friends get separated, have one outside number everyone can call to check in so everyone knows where everyone else is and that they’re all right.

When it comes to wildfires, the best thing any homeowner can do is hope for the best - and prepare for the worst. “Sometime, it’s going to happen,” concluded Fennessy. “Sometime, the conditions are going to be just right.”